Every Monday, NewsFromSport’s Daniel Rouse breaks down the weekend that was in English football. Welcome to the “Eye on England.”
When Norwich City were last in the Premier League during the 2015-16 campaign, manager Alex Neil felt compelled to load his team with top-flight experience. Youssouf Mulumbu, Robbie Brady, Matt Jarvis, Graham Dorrans, and Steven Naismith all joined over the course of the year, and despite outscoring 21 teams during their promotion season, Neil also became more conservative in his approach.
The Canaries were immediately relegated back into the Championship.
This time around, the difference in approach is stark. Only three of the 13 players that faced Manchester City on Saturday had played Premier League football before this season commenced, yet a team greener than a manure magnate’s front lawn played with a familiarity and verve that shook the reigning Premier League champions in a 3-2 win.
It was a victory for the stubborn philosophy coordinated by manager Daniel Farke and sporting director Stuart Webber. Unlike during Neil’s regime, Norwich aren’t content with survival.
Teemu Pukki resembles an upright bass player for a Mumford & Sons support act but is the Premier League’s surprise sensation of the term’s opening weeks. He swiped a goal and an assist against Manchester City to add to his early haul.
Like all of Norwich’s deals since the summer of 2017, Webber arranged Pukki’s free transfer to East Anglia. Webber watched Pukki for six years before he joined 15 months ago, a lengthy period that included the forward’s forgettable spell as an understudy to Georgios Samaras and Anthony Stokes at Celtic. Pukki’s eye for goal was better demonstrated in his subsequent four years with Brondby in Denmark, but Webber, from the very start, was in awe of the Finn’s industry and knack of bringing colleagues into play.
Those attributes have been refined at Norwich and were key during Manchester City’s visit. His assist for Todd Cantwell – when he peeled off the back of John Stones and tempted Kyle Walker toward him before releasing the Norfolk-reared midfielder – and mugging of Nicolas Otamendi for his own strike were two of many examples of when his selfless running and hassling wobbled and warped Pep Guardiola’s backline.
With 35 goals in 48 league matches, Pukki has made a greater impact than any talent Webber uncovered while leading Huddersfield Town to the Premier League. He isn’t, however, the finest discovery of Webber’s spell in Norwich.
Norwich’s head of recruitment, Kieran Scott, recalled in May that Emiliano Buendia was “a little bit overweight, 5-foot-7, (and) had a little bit of a temper” when he watched him play for Cultural Leonesa in Spain’s second tier. Luckily, Webber also saw through Buendia’s rough veneer, signed him, and then Farke had the bravery to field the Argentine after he moved to Carrow Road prior to last season.
Buendia’s attacking qualities are obvious, such as when he evaded Raheem Sterling with an outrageous elastico after 34 minutes while he was sadly in an offside position. But Buendia, like Pukki, is another crucial component of Farke’s pneumatic press.
Over the 2018-19 Championship conquest, Buendia led Norwich in completed tackles with 101. That number placed him 12th overall in the league and, incredibly, represented more successful challenges than defender Ezri Konsa, who cost Aston Villa £12 million this past summer, and Sheffield United’s new combative midfielder Mo Besic managed between them. Buendia is a winger.
He’s a special player and furnished his reputation as he attempted more tackles (nine) than anybody else in Norwich’s shunning of Manchester City.
There were plenty of other heroes from the weekend wrangle who emphasized Norwich’s intelligent hiring, dedication to developing and promoting youth, and trust in the system and players that got the club promoted. Jamal Lewis was pitted against Bernardo Silva and Sterling, and he frustrated both. Defender Ben Godfrey issued the second-most passes by a Norwich outfielder; his ease on the ball is a direct result of his 2017-18 season on loan in Shrewsbury Town’s midfield. Cantwell – who, like Godfrey, is just 21 – was one of the few players dealt criticism last season while he started just 18 Championship matches, but he already has two goals and assists apiece over five Premier League outings.
“We all got given our chance last season and we’re paying the manager back by keeping his faith in us now,” Cantwell told BBC Sport following Norwich’s self-affirming triumph.
Arsenal surrendering a two-goal lead to draw 2-2 at Vicarage Road would normally be viewed as a missed opportunity but, in truth, Watford should feel short-changed. The Hornets capped Quique Sanchez Flores’ return as manager with a rousing second stanza on Sunday and fired 31 shots over the 90 minutes. The Gunners have allowed a whopping 96 shots in their opening five matches this season – more than any other team in Europe’s top five leagues – and cannot rely on Rob Holding alone to fix their defensive deficiencies when he’s reinstalled to the lineup.
Arsenal lent out some firepower to Leeds United this season, and they may begin to rue that decision after unleashing a paltry seven shots against Watford. Loanee Eddie Nketiah, 20, is yet to start a game for Marcelo Bielsa’s outfit, but he scored his second goal of the campaign in Sunday’s trip to Barnsley to help guide Leeds to the Championship’s summit. “For me, he is a complete player,” Bielsa gushed about the Arsenal youngster following the 2-0 victory at Oakwell.
Is Fernandinho still City’s most important player?
Guardiola’s defense was hampered by miscommunication, nonchalance, and poor-decision making in Sunday’s 3-2 defeat to Norwich. With Manchester City’s finest center-back, Aymeric Laporte, sidelined until the new year, Guardiola must seek options beyond the susceptible central defensive partnership of Stones and Otamendi. Step forward, Fernandinho: an underrated player in the air, keen tackler, and tactically astute disciple of Guardiola. Rodri may be the Brazilian’s long-term replacement at the base of midfield, but Fernandinho could extend his career by establishing himself as City’s second-best option at the heart of defense.